Tag Archives: Kate Hamer

The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer

It seems that the spirit of my holiday in Cyprus has not only stayed with me through Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection which started there and only recently finished (because I wanted it to last forever) this week. Also, for some unknown reason, my review of Kate Hamer’s debut novel The Girl in the Red Coat which I thought I posted after I got back has been sat in my drafts for four months. Oops. As regular passersby to this blog will know I hate flying and needed a book that would have me hooked at 30,000 feet. So I grabbed this debut novel as from what I had heard it was a thriller meets Little Red Riding Hood and would keep my nerves at bay and hold my attention for the four hour flight, which indeed it did. So with a quick tweak of the introduction which you are now reading (how ‘Meta’ that feels) here are my thoughts, just a little later than intended.

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Faber & Faber, 2015, paperback, fiction, 384 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘There’s been nothing for weeks,’ said Paul eventually. ‘No new leads, nothing.’
‘I know.’
Leads – those invisible wires that could take us to her. Or Hansel and Gretel’s trail of breadcrumbs. The wind seemed to have scattered them and time snipped them off. He was right, there’d been nothing.

For anyone who has had children, or has looked after them, the biggest fear when you take them anywhere for a day out is that you will lose them. Hamer plays on this instinct early on in The Girl With The Red Coat when, and I hope this isn’t giving too much away, Beth takes her daughter, Carmel, on a day out and loses her in a maze. The sense of foreboding, unease, tension and fear that Hamer builds up in Beth as she searches madly for her daughter is palpable, I was utterly tense (far more than I was about being on the plane whilst reading it) for what felt like forever though was actually only a few pages. This is the power of Hamer’s writing and yet it is a mere foreshadowing of what she puts you through when Carmel is abducted by a man mere months later at a storytelling festival, the aftermath of which becomes the crux of the novel.

The Girl in the Red Coat is, quite literally in two ways, a book of two halves. Firstly there is the way that it is told. Chapters alternate, though sometimes one voice will take over for a few chapters, between Beth and Carmel from the very start. On the one hand we get the mothers view of her fears for her child when there isn’t any danger, the situation that she and her daughter have found themselves before she goes missing, then the horrors, followed by the dreadful sense of loss (and clinging to hope) when she is gone. How do you carry on?

Sometimes I wonder if when I’m dead I’m destined to be looking still. Turned into an owl and flying over the fields at night, swooping over crouching hedges and dark lanes. The smoke from chimneys billowing and swaying from the movement of my wings as I pass through. Or will I sit with her, high up in the beech tree, playing games? Spying on the people who live in our house and watching their comings and goings. Maybe we’ll call out to them and make them jump.

We then also get the complete opposite perspective from Carmel. She is clearly angry and unsure why her parents have split up, which Beth relates to us, before she goes missing. She is also finding her mother’s protective nature cloying and annoying until, she believes, her mother has had an accident and the grandfather she has never met comes to her aide. We then follow her on the journey that he takes her which, without giving too much away, takes her to a crumbling old house before heading off to another land and what can only be described as a cult. I shall say no more on the plot, however as it goes on Carmel starts to get a sense that something isn’t right and we follow her as she questions things and the repercussions of those questions.

I lean back feeling sleepy and trying not to be. All that I can think is that I wish I was at home with Mum and everything was back to normal. That this wasn’t worth a stupid story about a fairy who has to earn her wings. Or even meeting the real writer. Where are fairies and writers when you need them? If I was with Mum, and everything was OK, I wouldn’t try to get away from her again. I’d stay close to her all the time. I wouldn’t even try looking over the wall at home, not ever.

The Girl in the Red Coat is an absolutely packed novel. One of the many reasons I love reading debuts are that they do tend to be buzzing with ideas and this one certainly is. Here there are tropes and the themes in as much abundance as there are plot twists along the way. As you read on it becomes a mix of thriller and fairytale which is what I was really hoping it was going to be from what I had heard prior to picking it up. You know I love a good fairytale, and indeed a good thriller, so I loved the nods to fairytales as you read on; the title of the book, the crumbling castle Beth is taken to, the evil ogre (who never becomes pantomime which I appreciated, he is just an odious scary but very real villain) you just worry and wonder if there will be a fairytale ending?

Occasionally I did find there was a bit too much going on, which leads to the second reason that for me this was a book of two halves. The first half for me was some brilliant writing of apprehension, brooding tension and nerves. The second half, once we go abroad, whilst still oddly fascinating felt much less real to me. You are probably all incredulously thinking ‘but what fairytales feel real?’ and you would be right yet this isn’t a fairytale all over, it is also a contemporary drama and a thriller/mystery. It was also the section when Carmel’s ‘sensitivity’, which is hinted at in the first half, comes to the fore. I can’t discuss this more here for fear of spoilers again, but maybe in the comments below. The only way I can describe it is like two very different books had suddenly been merged together in the middle. Once I was in the swing of the second half of the book I was off again, it was just a slight jarring on that initial switch, the spell being broken briefly in between.

Whilst I did have a few quibbles here and there, they didn’t stop my overall enjoyment of the novel and indeed the aforementioned plane journey quite literally flew by. I then finished it off the next morning at the hotel before breakfast, so it was quite literally a two sitting read. This is because of Hamer’s writing, which is wonderful and I found particularly strong through Beth’s eyes where the tensions and the emotions of the novel lay for me. (This is probably because I don’t tend to like children narrators and nothing to do with the drawing of Carmel’s character.) Hamer can certainly create an intriguing cast of characters and spin a good yarn. The Girl in the Red Coat is an unusual and brimming debut, I will be intrigued and look forward to whatever she writes next.

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Books To Take on Holiday… Help!

Excitingly I am off on holiday tomorrow to Cyprus for a week of sun, sea, sand, ruins, cocktails and much reading on sun loungers (if the weather is to be believed) or the balcony. I cannot wait, this is my first holiday ‘not doing anything’ in three years and the prospect of just reading, mooching about, paddling and swimming is a little bit too joyful. What isn’t joyful however is deciding what on earth to pack book-wise. As many of you will know I loathe my Kindle Fire with a passion (the glare, the lack of pages, etc, I have tried I really have) so books is the only way. After many painstaking hours I have come up with a shortlist, which is 21 books long and takes up the entirety of one case. So I need your help to whittle it down so I can actually fit some clothes in. Here are the choices…

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  • The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett
  • The Sellout – Paul Beatty
  • Black Water – Louise Doughty
  • The Danish Girl – David Ebershoff
  • The Fair Fight – Anna Freeman
  • Our Endless Numbered Days – Claire Fuller
  • The Girl in the Red Coat – Kate Hamer
  • The Ship – Antonia Honeywell
  • Moriarty – Anthony Horowitz
  • The Loney – Andrew Michael Hurley
  • Human Acts – Han Kang
  • Disclaimer – Renee Knight
  • A Reunion of Ghosts – Judith Claire Mitchell
  • This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell
  • The Illuminations – Andrew O’Hagan
  • Anatomy of a Soldier – Harry Parker
  • Merciless Gods – Christos Tsiolkas
  • The Good Liar – Nicholas Searle
  • Gold Flame Citrus – Claire Vaye Watkins
  • A Lovely Way To Burn – Louise Welsh
  • A Year of Marvellous Ways – Sarah Winman

So which of these have you read and, without giving any spoilers away, what did you make of them? I will then check your answers before I leave and pick seven, maybe 8 (as the flight is 5 hours each way, notice the excuses start creeping in) for the trip. Now I better sort out my pants and other attire, thanks in advance.

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Why I Still Turn to Fairytales…

Some might say it is a little bit queer (rolls eyes at self) that a thirty three year old man would be desperate to see Cinderella as his 33rd birthday treat, yet this was my story just a few weeks ago. Since I can remember when I have loved a good fairytale. This I blame on my family frankly.

Firstly my highly over imaginative grandfather who made me believe that the tower at the top of our hill (actually part of The Heights of Abraham) was where Rapunzel lived (who I named my pet duck after) and who also wrote me magical tales with me in them when I was three upwards. Secondly my pair of wicked ugly aunties (only joking Caz and Alice, honest, gulp) who told me tales of witches who lived on the hill, which I think they made up. Thirdly my mother who would read and reread (and reread and reread and reread) the wonderful Ladybird Well Loved Tales to me as a child. Fourthly my Gran who also read me those and would watch the Slipper and the Rose (one of the best versions of the Cinderella story, end of) at least four or five times, with a break in between for The Wizard of Oz or the odd Doris Day movie, when I would stay in the school holidays. I know, this explains so much right there doesn’t it?

My old family home, surrounded by forest – Sleeping Beauty much?

So I guess fairy tales were a safe haven when I was growing up and indeed have been my turn to books whenever I am feeling a little off kilter, ill, out of sorts or have the dreaded readers block. There are the odd exceptions but Into the Woods was a film not a book and probably shouldn’t be mentioned ever again. Oddly enough once I realised how much darker they were than sanitised Ladybird or Disney incarnations I loved them all the more, though still haven’t read all the ‘fairy tales uncut’ as it were. That was why there was really no other first tattoo option for me; I am planning a ‘woodland fairytale scene’ on my other arm as we speak. Seeing Cinderella, which was extremely good indeed thank you for asking, and having the new routine of watching an episode of Once Upon a Time with my breakfast and coffee and sometimes my lunch – the urge for me to read the originals and the new homage’s and the like has come back really strong.

I thought instead of me just asking you for advice on which ones I should look out for, though you all know I am going to ask that later let’s not pretend, I decided I would share with you some fairy tales and fairy tale themed books I have loved and some I have been buying and hoarding and planning to read at some point.

Just a selection from my shelves...

Just a selection from my shelves…

First up are some books that I would really, really recommend and indeed have reviewed. There are of course the originals but you all know about all of them. There have been some wonderful authors who have taken on the fairytales and given them their spin. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is one fine example, as is Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales (which do what they say on the tin) and I would highly recommend Sarah Pinborough’s trilogy of Poison, Charm (which I have read but yet to review) and Beauty (which I have yet to read) which give the tales of three princesses a much darker and saucier feel, and cleverly interweaves them all.

If you fancy some new fairytales then you can’t go wrong with the fantastically gothic graphic novel collection of both Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods and Isabel Greenberg’s An Encyclopedia of Early Earth one which will give you the horrors, the other which looks at myths, fairytales and legends and their creation. Then there is the wonderful collection by Viktor and Rolf, which safe to celebrates the campiness of the fairytale, disco hedgehog anyone? Oh and how could I forget the sublime, sublime, sublime Diving Belles by Lucy Wood which is one of my favourite short story collections every and will have you seeing magic, mermaids and witches everywhere when you leave the house.

There is one standout though that both reinvents and invents. With Bitter Greens I think Kate Forsyth, who is actually a Doctor of Fairytales yet who we shall just call Queen of the Fairy Tales for now, has done something incredible that any fairy tale or story lover of any type should read. In it we meet three women all isolated from society for various different reasons, a storyteller locked in a nunnery, a woman locked into getting revenge and a young girl locked in a tower. These women’s tales come together to create a wonderful novel about storytelling, history, and fairytales and of course my favourite tale of all the story tales… Rapunzel. Just read it. I need to read The Wild Girl which I believe looks at the Brothers Grimm themselves and nicely links in to some books I haven’t read yet but have bought.

So what of the books to read?  I didn’t realise this until recently, and now it seems so obvious, but Kate Hamer’s debut about a child abducted The Girl in the Red Coat is one I am itching to read, as is Kirsty Logan’s collection of modern fairytales The Rental Heart. Then there is the series that I have seen lots and lots and lots of people going crazy over, the dystopic Lunar Chronicles which sees Cinderella as a cyborg, Little Red Riding Hood turn detective/street crime fighter and Rapunzel a computer hacker. I. CANNOT. WAIT!

Oh and then there are two nonfiction books I should mention. Once Upon a Time which is Marina Warner’s short history of the fairytale (apparently she is an expert so I might end up wanting her entire backlist) and I am also desperate to read, Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland which comes with the subtitle the tangled roots of our forests and fairytales which I have had on the shelves for far too long and needs to be read.

Phew I think that is enough! As you can see this list is not exhaustive and I am sure there are many, many recommendations you would love to pass onto me. Hint, hint. Has Margaret Atwood not done some fairytales, it will be a crime if not. If you would like to hear Kate Forsyth and I talking fairytales, you can do so here, oh and if anyone would like to be a secret benefactor and send me to Australia to do a doctorate of fairytales and follow in Kate’s footsteps do let me know. Right over to you; which of the above have you read and what would you recommend?

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Guessing the Bailey’s Prize Longlist 2015

I haven’t done this for a year or two I don’t think, yet as it is International Women’s Day it seemed fitting for me to celebrate it by celebrating female authors and what could do that better than by playing guess the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction longlist which will be revealed on Tuesday next week. Initially I didn’t think I would be able to hazard a guess at this, yet when I started thinking about the books that I have read and loved plus went and looked through my shelves of all the books I have meant to read in the last year I suddenly had far too many. You see that is my criteria for guessing, which books have I read and loved that are eligable and which ones would I love to see listed because I am desperate to read them and think they may well be corkers, as may you!

So here are the books that I have read and would LOVE to see on the list on Tuesday, I have linked if I have reviewed them…

The Bees by Laline Paull, He Wants by Alison Moore, After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry, Thirst by Kerry Hudson, Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, The Repercussions by Catherine Hall (which I edited one edition of so haven’t reviewed yet but will with that caveat) and finally The Miniturist by Jessie Burton, which I just read and absolutely adored, more soon.

Then for the books that I really want to read…

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (which I actually have finished since scheduled this post), Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre, How to be Both by Ali Smith, Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, An Untamed State by Roxanne Gay, Rise by Karen Campbell, Her by Harriet Lane, Weathering by Lucy Wood, I Am China by Xiaolu Guo, Mother Island by Bethan Roberts and Young God by Katherine Faw Morris.

(I could also have mentioned The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart which I have read all of. And I also mulled over Academy Street by Mary Costello, The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, The Exit by Helen Fitzgerald, The First Bad Man by Miranda July, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, A Blue Spool of Thread by Anne Tyler and The Girl in the Red Coat by Kate Hamer.)

Blimey hasn’t it been an amazing year, again, for women’s fiction. What are your thoughts on the Bailey’s Prize longlist, let me know if you have had a guess and if not which ones would you like to see on the list? Have you read any of the above and if so what did you think? Who would you love to win?

P.S Sorry the pictures aren’t all the same size, it is setting off my OCD slightly too!

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